Blossoms in the dust


At the end of 2015 I visited Innsbruck in Austria for some work and noticed stickers across the city from the Green party. The slogan on the sticker read: ‘systems change not climate change’.

The post-second World War international development cooperation and development approaches are in transition. Development theory and policy finds themselves in an impasse; many development organisations are reflecting about the question; what is core? (e.g. project funding; Capacity Development support; lobby and advocacy). Over the past two decades development organisation have moved away more and more from political (power) dimensions of change processes (‘systemic change’) ; partnership relations between partners from North and South often remain very problematic as they lack characteristics of authentic partnership (reciprocity and mutuality); many development organisation find it difficult to measure the outcomes of their work; communication about results is often poor. As a result the moral authority and the legitimacy of development organisations has depreciated  in many countries.. Additionally, budgets for Office Development Assistance are decreasing in many countries. Non-Governmental Development Organisations in many countries, including the Netherlands have moved toward, what South African and American scholar and civic rights activists Xolela Mangcu and Harry Boyte dub ‘the technocratic creep’ (the substitution of technical approaches and top down “service delivery” for popular agency) and have become – whether they like it or not – sub-contractors of often not so progressive government policies.

Against this background, many development organisations are, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, changing their approaches to poverty alleviation and marginalisation. Non-political project approaches (with an emphasis on charity), instrumental (instead of intrinsic) Capacity Development and/or mobilising (instead of organising) communities are becoming again the dominant development paradigm.

Development is of course a political process with human beings at the centre and change of power relations at the core of the matter. A technocratic, non-political approach is not going to contribute to the ‘another world’, which is among others visualised by the World Social Forum.

At the end of last year I visited the copper mine area in Zambia around the town of Kitwe, where abject poverty of marginalised communities is being combined with vast environmental degradation.


Photo: courtesy Fieke Jagers, ActionAid, the Netherlands

Development workers of the local diocese try to influence the local power equations. They have been trained by Training for Transformation (TfT) (Kleinmond South Africa); one of the organisations that is indeed keeping the fire for transformative change burning. The organisation is part of the Grail, the international women’s movement, and has a long tradition in working on the principles of the late Paulo Freire. Within this approach emphasis is placed on a participatory analysis of a particular situation, followed by reflection and renewal. As a result, the agency (taking responsibility for the development, growth of oneself and society at large) of all involved is being strengthened.

For a few years now, I have been on the guest faculty of the Diploma Course of TfT. The Course attracts development practitioners from all over the world (with this year 31 participants from 14 countries). Within the Diploma Course I carry the responsibility for a module about a social business approach to change processes. During the week we pay attention to subjects such as ‘blended value’ (the creation of multiple values); core characteristics of a social business; definition of a proper Value proposition; the Business Model Canvas as a tool; what needs to happen to change the dependency of development actors on grants.

Throughout the week the social business concept to change processes was not promoted as another new panacea to change the world. Nobel Prize laureate Yunus has rightly argued that ‘Poverty is not created by poor people. It is created by the system that we have built, the institutions that we have designed, and the concepts that we have formulated’ (Yunus, 2010). The godfathers of social entrepreneurship in Europe – Liam Black and Jeremy Nicholls – have therefore rightly argued that ‘A million social business entrepreneurs can show how things can be done in radically different ways but they cannot redistribute wealth or compel large businesses to take responsibility for the mess they make. Systemic change requires government action …’ (Black and Nicholls, 2004).

At the same time within the Training for Transformation methodology it is being realised that poor people cannot wait for Godot (waiting for something that will probably never happen) to come and that it is important that political struggle for transformational change needs to be accompanied by designing, implementing and fostering learnings from alternatives. In the words of my co-facilitator Zunaid Moolla: (2014): ‘There is a case then to make for community-based organisations to undertake alternative economic growth and development initiatives’. “[…] We must acknowledge that decisions regarding major macro-economic policy levers could never devolve to communities’. We therefore made sure that the concept of social business was not being dealt with in an a-political, instrumental traditional ‘Non-Governmental Development Organisation-like approach’, the concept was well positioned within the concept of transformative change and social solidarity economy.

By Fons van der Velden
Context, international cooperation
February 2016, Utrecht, the Netherlands